Seven score and 16 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famed Gettysburg Address. The date was November 19, 1863. It ran just 271 words, amazingly short now for a speech and even more so in 1863, when people had delightfully long attention spans. There’s a great story behind it.
Lincoln was second on the bill. The key speaker, Edward Everett, orated for more than two hours. The crowd of 15,000 loved Everett and wept as he narrated about the Battle of Gettysburg, which had taken place on the site less than five months earlier.
Then Lincoln spoke his 10 sentences. As The Writers Almanac noted, the President “did not mention any of the specifics of the war or any of the details of the battle, did not mention the North or the South, and did not mention slavery. What he said was that our nation was founded on the idea of equality, and the war was being fought over that idea.”
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Speechwriters will note the ample use of triplets, the lyrical parallelism, the alternation of short and long sentences, and the chilling personification of the world (“it can never forget what they did here”).
Long-winded Everett later told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
I’d like to think that Lincoln would have considered Twitter too short a medium for serious thoughts, but who knows? It is something to think about next time you visit the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA.